Employ Deep Work: Overcoming distractions in a demanding world

This is part three in our series on attention. Find part 2 here.

As attention spans shrink across the whole board, the most sought-after and valuable skill in the “knowledge economy” might be the ability to concentrate deeply. In his book, Deep Work - Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport describes how demanding tasks that need your sustained attention can be pulled off more efficiently by making sure that your mindset, habits, and environment are optimized in your favor and for the task at hand. He argues that this skill, the ability to conduct deep work, is critical for all non-trivial knowledge-heavy professions found in fields such as academia, data science, engineering, law, art, architecture, and writing, to name a few.

Newport defines the term “deep work” as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. (Cal Newport, 2016, Deep Work, p.3)

He contrasts this mode of operation with the growing load of  “shallow work”, non-cognitively taxing, logistical-style tasks that are often performed repetitively while distracted, like answering emails. Efforts like these usually do not add much qualitative value. If you spread out these types of tasks over the whole workday, working in a noisy environment, you will not be able to concentrate for long nor produce any form of deep work.

Deep work tasks can often generate a flow state, letting you reap all the benefits of stretching your attention to the limit, entering a state of productive meditation where you “become” the task and feel more fulfilled and happy for it. 

This is undoubtedly a critical skill to have in a world where your attention is easily prodded and sapped by an unrelenting tide of information. So, how can you go about harnessing the power of deep work? Newport supplies a series of helpful tips and advice in his book, among which are:

  • Make a habit of conducting tasks that require you to concentrate deeply. If you do not engage in tasks that benefit from deep work your ability might degrade and wane in the long run
  • Identify and negate distractors and habits that break your flow and hamper your productivity. Not all of us have the privilege to change our work environment (if you are working in an open-plan office for example), but there are factors that you can control, and triggers that you can eliminate. Strictly limit any form of notification from your phone and schedule specific time slots for more shallow work (like answering emails, texting, and browsing social media). If you often feel a strong urge to look at your Twitter feed or watch youtube videos on your phone, make it physically hard to achieve this by turning your phone off or putting it inside a hard-to-reach locker. Your attention is a finite resource, and so is your willpower. If you have habits that distract you from focusing, you will fall for them eventually.
  • Form new habits and routines to transform your mindset. Some decisions are more important than others, while some might not actually matter much at all but slowly drain your reservoir of attention. Try to eliminate unnecessary decisions by internalizing new rules and rituals that automate certain tasks, like what to wear at work or what to eat for breakfast. Repeated activities are much less cognitively demanding. New routines, like meditation or putting your phone away when starting your work day, will help as well.
  • Batch your deep work activities. Work days are not only filled with complex tasks that require deep work. Ensure that you have a block of uninterrupted time for high-concentration tasks and conduct less demanding ones during the rest of the day.
  • Do not shy from “boring”. We have a gadget of unlimited entertainment in our pockets, which makes it easy to always keep busy, practically eliminating situations where your mind is undistracted, roaming free from digital distractions. Keeping yourself constantly busy will chain your attention to novel stimuli and leave a non-fertile soil where creativity has a hard time blossoming. Meditation and spending time in nature, engaging in peripheral awareness are good antidotes.

Deep Work is an essential read for everyone interested in a focused life, on matters that are meaningful to you. Here at Cogmed, we are always looking for more ways to increase our capacity for focused work. Do you have any personal tips and tricks for finding a state of flow? If you want to share, please send us an email at blog@cogmed.com

Fredrik Köhler

Applications Coordinator

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